LONDON, Ont. – Dale Hunter’s success this season isn’t limited to the NHL.
The head coach of the Washington Capitals is also the majority owner and president of the London Knights, who are playing in the Ontario Hockey League final against the Niagara IceDogs.
Hunter left after more than 10 seasons as the Knights’ head coach to take over the Capitals on Nov. 28. He’s still missed by the junior hockey team despite their run to the title without him.
“We certainly miss his leadership here,” said Knights governor Trevor Whiffen. “Dale is the ultimate leader in the dressing room on game night, but everyone else here has done their best to fill the gaps very nicely.”
London rolled out a smooth transition behind the bench with Dale Hunter’s brother Mark taking over as head coach, adding one more name plate to his office door along with general manager and vice-president. Mark Hunter won a Stanley Cup in 1989 with Calgary and played more than 600 NHL games with other stops in Montreal, Hartford, St. Louis and Washington.
Dale Hunter’s son, Dylan, who was an OHL star when London won its only Memorial Cup in 2005, was already an assistant coach with the team.
Assistant general manager Misha Donskov has been on staff for four years and said he sees a lot of similarities between Dale and Mark.
“The word I always like to use about the coaching change is seamless,” said Donskov. “When Mark stepped in, he obviously already knew all the guys. Dale and Mark share all the same philosophies. They expect the players to be accountable, and from the standpoint of systems, their expectations are the same—be responsible on defence and play all three zones.”
With the evolving coaching staff the Knights maintained their course, completing the OHL regular season first overall with 99 points. Dale Hunter went 20-5-1 before answering the call to the NHL. Mark Hunter later won 29 of his 42 games.
Dale Hunter had 323 goals and 697 assists in 1,407 games during a 19-year career with the Quebec Nordiques, Washington and a final brief stint with the Colorado Avalanche.
Whiffen recalled that almost at the same moment Dale Hunter was accepting the Capitals post, another client and friend was relieved of his duties.
“I helped Bruce Boudreau negotiate his contract with Washington and after he’s let go by George McPhee, Bruce is calling me to commiserate,” said Whiffen. “I had just talked to Dale (about unrelated matters) the night before. For me, it was a surreal day.”
Under Boudreau’s leadership the Capitals had won four straight Southwest Division regular-season titles and had started the current campaign with seven consecutive victories. But Washington fired Boudreau after losing six of eight games and turned to Hunter.
Hunter helped turn around the Capitals, who went 30-23-7 under their new coach to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference before dumping the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round.
With the pressures of OHL playoffs continuing, everyone in the Knights dressing room is glued to the Capitals’ results.
“There’s a lot of Washington Capitals ball caps in our dressing room,” said Donskov, who recalled the recent Knights’ sweep of the Kitchener Rangers for the OHL Western Conference final. On their way back to London, the team watched their former coach and the Caps eliminate Boston.
“Instead of celebrating (our conference championship), everyone was watching Dale’s game go into overtime. You could hear a pin drop on that bus,” said Donskov. “The bus erupted when Washington won in OT. It was an awesome scene.”